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Despite Criticism, New Art Forms Embraced by the Kennedy Center Honors Are a Breath of Fresh Air

Honoring pioneers like LL Cool J and Gloria Estefan enhances the power of the ceremony instead of diminishing it.

I love the Kennedy Center Honors. I love its devotion to artists, and watching those inspired by them pay tribute. The last eight years we were blessed to have a President who took an active interest in the arts, and Melissa Ethridge’s performance of “Born to Run” for Bruce Springsteen felt like something that could only happen under Obama. But I don’t need the President to be a Democrat to enjoy the show – the only thing I liked about George W. Bush was watching him sit through the ceremony every year as people came up to honor artists he’d never heard of. (I could only imagine what he was thinking in 2005 during the tribute to Broadway star Julie Harris.) If Trump attends the ceremony, watching him grimace his way through it will be the only good part of his presidency.

I am thrilled by the choices for this year’s honorees: dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, Gloria Estefan, Lionel Richie, Norman Lear, and LL Cool J, which is why I was disappointed by this op-ed from The Washington Post’s Philip Kendicott on the commercialization of the honors:

“For years now, the Kennedy Center honors have been devolving from an event that recognizes stellar achievement across a diverse and rich tradition of American arts into an entertainment-driven event that rewards star power and pop-culture cachet. Representatives of the wide range of traditional arts, including classical music, opera and ballet, have been edged out… only…Carmen de Lavallade falls into the tradition of the arts on which the Kennedy Center was founded and built its reputation…The other honorees…are all great talents, but belong to a commercial entertainment culture that has no need of the Kennedy Center…to establish and maintain a connection with their enormous audiences.”

While Kendicott admits that it is “easy to quibble over who should be on the list,” his argument, to me, feels disingenuous, based on a presumption that what we think of as “the arts” should be exactly what it was forty years ago, when the first ceremony was held. Debates which divide “highbrow” from “lowbrow” art and culture, have always felt to me like academic categorization which only bears a superficial resemblance to what actually influences us. One of my professors in grad school at Harvard had spent his career making these categorizations – if it were left up to him, Arthur Miller, whom he had famously dismissed as a second-rater, or Lerner and Loewe, whose masterpiece, My Fair Lady, he referenced one in class as “good, but no Long Day’s Journey into Night” (as if anyone outside academia ever made such a comparison), would never have been honored at the Kennedy Center, as they were in 1984 and 1985, respectively.

Kendicott is right that the Honors have moved away from honoring “the fine arts,” as more and more popular artists have been selected, but to assume that the Honors were based only around the finest of the fine is a mistake. The first ceremony, in 1978, honored Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein. All represented “fine arts” like dance, opera, and music. But three of them had earned their place that night by pioneering one of America's most unique art forms: the musical.

Fred Astaire got his start in vaudeville with his sister Adele, and moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. George Balanchine, in addition to founding the New York City Ballet, brought modern dance to musicals by choreographing the first musical theater ballet that advanced the story, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from Richard Rodgers’ On Your Toes. Rodgers, collaborating with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote the most popular musicals this country had ever seen, shows which we are still catching up to today for their complex takes on racism, misogyny, and nationhood. Had these awards taken place in 1958 instead of 1978, with the same five artists, the criticism would have been, "Why are we even mentioning musical comedy in the same breath as opera and classical music?" 

The addition of new art forms does not diminish the Honors – it enhances them, because allows us to witness how art forms evolve over time, both in what today's artists are able to accomplish, and how their elders allow them to exist. Many of the art forms being honored this year were still in their infancy in 1978. Norman Lear was at the height of his powers that year, but a television luminary would not be given an Honor until Lucille Ball in 1986, the same year they first recognized R&B with Ray Charles. Gloria Estefan had only formed Miami Sound Machine the year before, and was too busy popularizing her genre to think of such honors.

Richard Rodgers, who died in December 1979, probably never heard The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which debuted three months before he passed. He had no idea how rap and hip-hop, which didn’t exist as we know them the year before, would be influenced by and pay tribute to him. The culmination of this, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, is currently entering the second year of its Broadway run at the theater which bears his name. That LL Cool J is now the first hip-hop artist to be invited to the Kennedy Center Honors opens the door for more artists like him to be honored. I cannot wait for the tribute to Nas someday.

TV, R&B, Latin and hip-hop are now deemed worthy enough to take their place with dance and classical. Kendicott even admits that the Honors were created with a “big-tent” mentality. Nothing wrong with wanting to see people like Philip Glass and John Addams have their moments on that stage too. But having a bigger tent is better for everyone.